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These knives are ready for action!

I can still recall that first day at the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA!), when we were issued our very own, personal knife kits. Inside each black leather case were elastic bands placed so as to snugly secure a French knife, boning knife, paring knife, sharpening steel, and various others. My chef-instructor impressed upon us how critical it was to protect and maintain the integrity of each and every blade. It was a lesson I have never forgotten. There is simply no other more important tool in the kitchen, and any cook worth his salt travels with his own proprietary knives.

You could say that, for me, respecting and protecting my knives is a kind of religion. It pains me to see people cutting anything sans cutting board. Cutlery malpractice is so widespread, in fact, that I’m not surprised to find loose knives rattling around in a drawer wherever I go. Or knives cast into the sink to clang against dirty pots and dishes.

Working with a keen edge is both practical and sensuous: boning a chicken, filleting a red snapper, dicing veggies for lentil soup. The job is effortless, with precision and a minimum of waste. With a dull blade (known in the trade as a “hoe”), simple tasks become challenging, if not impossible. Try slicing a grilled flank steak thinly (against the grain so that it chews easily) with an abused knife, or even a ripe tomato for burgers. Can’t do it! And cooks beware – a dull knife puts your fingers in danger. By forcing a dull knife to cut through food, you run the risk of a slipping or twisting out of control…and ending up with bloody fingers.

How do you care for your knives? 

  1. Store them in a butcher’s block or on a wall-mounted magnetic rack. A butcher’s block is prettier, but takes up valuable counter space. I have a 12″ Browne Foodservice Magnetic Knife Rack in my kitchen, available online for about ten dollars, which comfortably accommodates six or so items.
  2. Keep your knives sharp by honing them often with what’s called a “steel”–an inexpensive tool that evens out the burrs and maintains a good edge. For actually sharpening a dull knife, an oiled whetstone will do the job for anyone with experience, but an easier route is to buy an electric sharpener. I am very happy with my Chef’s Choice Trizor 15″ EdgeSelect (not cheap at about $150). Specialty cutlery shops used to sharpen knives for a couple of dollars apiece, but most of those stores have been put out of business by cheaper online vendors. Check online to see if there is a local sharpening service near you.
  3. And lastly, treat your knives with the respect they deserve. Always use a cutting board, either wood or polyurethane. Polyurethane goes in the dishwasher for convenience and easier sanitation, though there is something more satisfying working on wood. Of course, if you own wooden cutting boards you must always hand wash them by hand in the sink!

To find out my preferences and recommendations for knives, stay tuned for a future post.  (Expensive is not always better!)